Where does Rep. Joe Kennedy stand on Israel?

Jacob Kamaras

Ahead of November’s midterm elections, much Jewish communal concern and debate has centered on the anti-Israeli views of Democratic congressional candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib in New York and Michigan, respectively, coming against the backdrop of the growing partisan divide on Israel.

Meanwhile, in New England, a young Democrat with a rising national profile and highly recognizable surname is running unopposed for a fourth term in the region’s most Jewish congressional district. As rumored 2020 presidential candidate Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.)—the grandson of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, grandnephew of President John F. Kennedy, and son of Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II—more frequently assumes the spotlight through platforms like his rebuttal of U.S. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, the 38-year-old lawmaker’s policies on Israeli and Jewish issues could draw increased attention.

Brett M. Rhyne, editor of The Jewish Advocate in Boston, believes that Kennedy “is in a somewhat challenging position vis-à-vis Israel and the Jewish community” in his district, which includes the heavily Jewish areas of Brookline and Newton.

“This Jewish community supports Israel, but most Jews here don’t support the right-wing policies of the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government,” Rhyne told JNS. “So Kennedy, who I think tends to the hawkish side when it comes to Israel, must also cater to his constituents’ conciliatory feelings toward the Palestinians and downright oppositional feelings toward Netanyahu. He also has to serve the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s liberal bent.”

Having it ‘both ways’ on Black Lives Matter?

In January’s State of the Union rebuttal, Kennedy’s line of “You steadfastly say, black lives matter” might not register as relevant to Israel for the average observer. Yet the official Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement’s platform calls to end “US aid to Israel’s military industrial complex,” and accuses Israel of “apartheid” and “genocide” against the Palestinians. Dream Defenders, a BLM offshoot, in 2016 took a tour of eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank that was led by a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist group.

“I don’t see how Representative Kennedy can support Black Lives Matter while choosing strategically to ignore its anti-Israel platform,” Jason D. Hill, a black immigrant from Jamaica and author of We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People, told JNS.

“If you look at the manifesto that Black Lives Matter has put forward, I think the direct anti-Israel position they have taken is a constitutive feature of the movement,” said Hill, a philosophy professor at DePaul University in Chicago. “No politician or no public figure can attempt to separate that kind of alignment of Black Lives Matter with such a statement or a position, and then try to say there is a movement called Black Lives Matter that we can also defend. Anti-Semitism, I think, is built into the Black Lives Matter movement. I don’t think you can have it both ways.”

Richard A. Landes, a retired professor of history who taught at Boston University for 25 years, told JNS, “If Kennedy wants to have integrity about his liberal values, at some point it would be good for him to say, ‘Look, Black Lives Matter is really missing this point.’ It’s time for real liberals to speak out about the insanity and the corrupt use of language that’s being mobilized in order to attack Israel, and save the Democratic Party from becoming the opposite of what it’s supposed to be.”

Kennedy, through his communications director, provided a statement that declined to address questions from JNS on issues such as the “black lives matter” reference in his State of the Union rebuttal, as well as on his positions regarding ongoing Palestinian violence at the Israel-Gaza border, the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and former President Bill Clinton’s recent sharing of a stage with anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan at the funeral of Aretha Franklin. Farrakhan recently compared Jews to termites and said Jews are “stupid.”

Instead, Kennedy told JNS, “Even in the midst of this deeply polarized moment, the bonds between the United States and Israel remain strong because they are grounded in our communities, strengthened by friends, neighbors and colleagues. Rather than allowing partisan headlines to divide us, our two nations remain united by our shared values and a shared commitment to democracy. That is why I have been a strong supporter of Israel and the entire Jewish community since the day I was sworn into Congress.”

Reacting to Kennedy’s statement, Joshua Muravchik, a distinguished fellow at the D.C.-based World Affairs Institute and author of Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, told JNS that it “rings hollow to affirm ‘support’ for Israel while lambasting it for defending itself. Every U.S. politician, bar none, ‘supports’ Israel. But Israel is under constant attack by enemies out to destroy it, and the real question is whether or not to support Israel’s self-defense.”

On the Palestinian conflict at the Gaza border

In May, Kennedy had stated regarding the situation in Gaza, “While Israel has every right to defend her borders, the excessive use of lethal force—combined with abhorrent incitement and instigation by Hamas—has taken too many innocent lives. This must end. Neither is the United States blameless. Our embassy in Israel ultimately belongs in Jerusalem. But the Trump administration’s hasty relocation was certain to spark anger, violence and unrest.”

During a debate in August 2012, when he was running for his first term in Congress, Kennedy said, “I think that the … capital of Israel is Tel Aviv.”

Muravchik called Kennedy’s Gaza comments “clearly an anti-Israel position.”

“The criticism of Hamas embedded in his statement is clearly a kind of throwaway line,” he said. “This is something that Hamas was doing and Israel was reacting to in self-defense, and to respond to it with a statement like this which puts the primary blame on Israel and the secondary blame on Hamas reflects a clear bias against Israel.”

Jeffrey S. Robbins—a partner in the Boston law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, former chairman of the Anti-Defamation League’s New England Board, and a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission under President Bill Clinton—met with Kennedy in the aftermath of his Gaza statement, and said it “was another meeting with Representative Kennedy which left me powerfully impressed on a number of levels.”

“One is the uncommon depth of knowledge that he has of this conflict and of the nuances of the conflict … and of the complications within the American-Jewish community regarding the conflict,” Robbins told JNS. “The second is I was reminded that he is genuinely one of the most important friends that Israel has in American politics. It is because he combines [his knowledge of the conflict with] tremendous respect among the progressive sub-constituencies of the Democratic Party all across America.”

Regarding the “black lives matter” reference in Kennedy’s State of the Union rebuttal, Robbins said he is “not at all concerned about the fact that he embraces the positive aspects of black lives matter, the positive aspects of civil-rights movements, which since time immemorial have had complicated relationships sometimes with the Jewish community and with Israel.”

Kennedy’s office pointed to his co-sponsorship during this current Congress of H.R.5141 United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act of 2018 and H.R.5132 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Economic Exclusion Act.

Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, told JNS that support for U.S.-Israel ties is “deep within [Kennedy’s] kishkes, having heard him talk both privately and publicly over the last seven years over and over again about everything from his grandfather’s experience as a journalist in Jerusalem in 1948 to his own experiences visiting Israel, engaging with Israelis, to his really deep thoughtfulness over time about U.S. interest in the region and the U.S.-Israel partnership. I take to heart that he is one of the strongest supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship in Congress and certainly in the Democratic Caucus.”

Burton said Kennedy is “constantly checking in with a wide range of leaders and individuals in the Jewish community.”

‘Middle of the Democratic Party’

Landes said he believes that Kennedy “represents sort of the middle of the Democratic Party, which would under normal circumstances be pro-Israel, but is unable to stand up to the pressure coming from what I call a lethal journalism-fed hysteria about Israel’s ‘excessive use of force.’ ”

This election season has seen a surge in far-left candidates emerging within the Democratic Party that have been accused of holding anti-Israel views. New York Democratic candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upset longtime incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in a party primary in June, has accused Israel of committing a “massacre” in the Gaza Strip. Similarly, Minnesota Democratic candidate Ilhan Omar has also previously accused Israel of “evil doings” and of being an “apartheid state.”  Similarly, Leslie Cockburn, the Democratic candidate for Virginia’s fifth congressional district, wrote a book back into the early 1990s titled Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship that has been panned for peddling conspiracies theories and smears that depict Israel as manipulating U.S. foreign policy.

“The Democratic Party is increasingly intolerant of those who enthusiastically support Israel, and increasingly friendly to those who demonize Israel,” Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby told JNS. “There aren’t a lot of Harry Truman Democrats anymore. Young, up-and-coming Democratic leaders today know that if they aren’t at least as critical of Israel as they are of Israel’s enemies, they may alienate a good chunk of their base. As an unabashed Zionist, I would like U.S. support for Israel to be broad and bipartisan. Unfortunately, it no longer is.”

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